Kong: Skull Island


Kong goes ape!

(2017) Adventure (Warner Brothers/Legendary) Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, Corey Hawkins, Toby Kebbell, Tian Jing, John Ortiz, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Eugene Cordero, Marc Evan Jackson, Will Brittain, Miyavi, Richard Jenkins, Allyn Rachel, Robert Taylor, Thomas Middleditch (voice), Beth Kennedy. Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts

 

Some monsters capture the imagination like no other. So it has been with Kong, the giant ape who since his first appearance in 1933 has been a mainstay in cinematic lore. There have been three American remakes of the original; in 1976, 2005 and now.

It is 1973 and the United States is withdrawing its troops from Vietnam. That doesn’t sit so well with Major Preston Packard (Jackson). However, before he and his boys can return home he is given a new assignment to accompany a scientific team to a remote island near Southeast Asia.

The scientists are led by Dr. Bill Randa (Goodman) whose Hollow Earth theories have been largely discredited and who is ostensibly researching seismic activity on the island but unknown to the soldiers that are accompanying him, as well as former SAS tracker James Conrad (Hiddleston) and photojournalist Mason Weaver (Larson), an anti-war activist who smells a big story. Is she ever right!

Their helicopter fleet is smashed to pieces by a gigantic ape 100 feet tall. The survivors are separated and try to make their way to a rendezvous point with their ship on the north shore of the island. The military men are trying to hunt down other survivors while Major Packard seethes; he wants to take out the ape that decimated his men. The civilians find their way to a human settlement where they find a surprising discovery; an aviator named Hank Marlow (Reilly) who has been stranded on the island since World War II.

Their job is to find a way off the island but it is far more perilous than just a single giant ape. There are other gigantic creatures (water buffalo, for example, and Daddy Long Leg spiders with legs as long as tree trunks. Worse, there are reptilian creatures that have ascended from the depths of the Earth and are only held back from mass destruction by Kong, who kills the bad boys on sight. And just between you and me I’d rather have Kong on my side than against.

I will give Vogt-Roberts credit; he knows how to keep the action going. This is definitely a roller coaster ride of a movie. But as roller coasters go, this one is a bit tamer than I expected. Peter Jackson’s 2005 magnum opus has nightmarish critters that range from dinosaurs to gigantic insects to things that have never existed and thank God for that. There are some creatures here (a giant octopus for example) but none really have the creepy factor that Jackson’s movie had and even the Big Bads – the Skullcrawlers as Marlow dubs them – are not as nightmare-inducing as they could be.

Hiddleston has paid his dues in a number of supporting roles and is more than ready to take on a heroic lead, but for some reason his performance here feels muted. I know he has tons of screen presence – I’ve seen it and not just in the Marvel appearances as Loki – but he doesn’t have much here. It’s sad too because I think this was a good role for him. Faring better is Reilly who damn near steals the movie as Marlow, who isn’t always sure if he’s thinking or speaking with often hilarious results. He’s one of the best reasons to see this movie.

Like all the Kong movies before it this is a boy’s club with a token woman to tame the beast, although that really doesn’t happen here. This is also set entirely on Skull Island; Kong doesn’t go to New York or anywhere else. Larsen is an actress whose stock is on the rise, but her role seems like nobody really knew what to do with her. Mason Weaver is no damsel in distress and that’s a good thing for women everywhere, but part of the Kong mythos requires one and the movie feels lacking without one.

A movie with a budget of $190 million dollars should not leave the viewers feeling meh but that’s what this one did for me. Maybe I expected more out of a Kong movie than just a slambang action film; it needed to have an epic feel to it and to my mind that’s just what it lacked. All three of the preceding Kong movies had it but I suppose sooner or later that streak would have to come to an end. Given that this is part of a new Monsterverse that started with the Godzilla reboot of a couple of years ago and will include some of the most well-known giant monsters from Japan and the United States, you would think that more care would be taken to keep this franchise viable. I hope they can bring back that larger than life feeling again; what good are giant monsters without it?

REASONS TO GO: Some of the monsters are spectacular. Reilly just about steals the film.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie plods a bit in the middle. It’s not as exciting as other giant monster films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and some pretty scary monsters; there’s also some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The appearance of Kong (the shape of his face and so on) was based on the look of the original 1933 Kong.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Journey to the Center of the Earth
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Exodus

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug


A merry company indeed.

A merry company indeed.

(2013) Fantasy (New Line/MGM) Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, Aidan Turner, Evangeline Lilly, Orlando Bloom, Lee Pace, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Fry, Luke Evans, Cate Blanchett, Sylvester McCoy, Mikael Persbrandt, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Dean O’Gorman, Stephen Hunter, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, Adam Brown, Manu Bennett. Directed by Peter Jackson

It’s not the destination, it’s the journey but that isn’t always true. Sometimes the journey really begins when the destination is reached.

For the company of dwarves under Thorin Oakenshield (Armitage) that couldn’t be more true. After the events of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, they must travel through the Mirkwood, a once-green and pleasant forest grown dark with corruption. There be spiders in them words, big ones the size of Volkswagens. There are also wood elves, led by the dour King Thranduil (Pace) who isn’t exactly on Thorin’s Christmas list – when Erebor originally fell, Thranduil failed to aid the dwarves in their hour of need, turning his thin aristocratic back on them. Thranduil’s isolationism mirrors that of America and Great Britain (for that matter) in the pre-World War II days when the original book was written and reminds us that Tolkein wasn’t just writing a children’s story – there was plenty of allegory to go around too.  Among the wood elves is a familiar face – Legolas (Bloom) who happens to be Thranduil’s son. Also there is Tauriel (Lilly), an elf Legolas is a bit sweet on. She also is the object of attention for Kili (Turner), one of the dwarf company.

Also on their tails are a party of Orcs led by the gruesome Azog the Defiler (Bennett) who appears to be answering to a mysterious Necromancer (Cumberbatch). Gandalf (McKellen), fearing the worst, goes to Dol Guldur accompanied by fellow wizard Radagast (McCoy) to investigate and gets more than he bargained for.

Meanwhile the company has made their escape from the elves with Tauriel and Legolas hot on their trails and make it to the human village of Laketown where they receive aid from Bard (Evans), a ferry captain who is dissatisfied from the corrupt regime of Laketown’s master (Fry). Still, Thorin manages to convince the Master that a dwarven presence in Erebor will only mean prosperity for Laketown. They are sent on their way with weapons and provisions leaving behind Kili who is gravely hurt after an Orc attack.

Once at the Lonely Mountain, the company will need to find the hidden doorway into Erebor and Bilbo (Freeman) will have to search for the Arkenstone, a powerful talisman and symbol of the right of the King Under the Mountain to rule Erebor without waking Smaug (Cumberbatch again) which is beastly difficult when you consider how much a dragon loves his treasure. Can Bilbo retrieve the jewel before Smaug becomes fire…and death?

To tell the truth I was more impressed with the visuals of the first movie than the overall film which I thought was more exposition than action. I’m pleased to report that’s thankfully not the case here where the film moves at a more suitable pace for fans of the original trilogy. There’s also more of Middle Earth to be explored (we’d already been in Rivendell and the Shire where the first film was primarily set) and a lot more action sequences.

Freeman remains a pitch-perfect Bilbo although he’s given less to do here. While Thorin and Balin (Stott) remain the primary focus within the dwarves, Kili gets a lot more attention here while we get to spend a goodly amount of time with new characters Tauriel, Bard and Thranduil although returning Legolas gets his share of screen time as well.

Once again the visuals are remarkable, particularly in the IMAX 3D High Frame Rate presentation, which is one of those rare instances where the upcharge is worth it. Of special note is Smaug, who is done through motion capture but the detail to his look is so exquisite you can see the individual scales as his muscles ripple under his skin. This may well be the most life-like CGI creature ever captured on the big screen.

Some Tolkein purists are grousing about the character of Tauriel who is a whole cloth invention of the filmmakers but I for one appreciate the inclusion of a female character in a book that was distinctly male-centric. Personally I don’t get that kind of complaint. It’s not like it’s headline news that the film version of a classic book is going to be different. That the movie version is different does nothing to diminish the original source material. You can still read it; it’s not like once the movie shows up in the local multiplex all the copies of the book are confiscated and burned. If you don’t like the movie version, don’t watch it. It’s really that simple.

This is definitely fine holiday entertainment. Jackson’s Middle Earth films may not have the same appeal as they once did but that doesn’t mean they aren’t entertaining enough to be worth your time and money. This is a great improvement over the first movie of the new trilogy; if the second film makes the same kind of improvement we’re in for a crackerjack of a time in 2014.

REASONS TO GO: A distinct improvement over the first film in the trilogy. Smaug is an amazing creation.

REASONS TO STAY: Still lacks the heart of the first trilogy. Cliffhanger ending abrupt and unsatisfying.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some seriously frightening images and plenty of fantasy violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tauriel is a complete invention of the filmmakers and doesn’t appear in any of Tolkein’s writing. She was brought in to add female characters into the film as the book has very few of them.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/26/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lord of the Rings; The Fellowship of the Ring

RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: The Godfather Part III

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey


Bilbo, Bilbo Baggins, the greatest little hobbit of them all!

Bilbo, Bilbo Baggins, the greatest little hobbit of them all!

(2012) Fantasy (New Line) Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, James Nesbitt, Aidan Turner, John Callen, William Kircher, Stephen Hunter, Dean O’Gorman, Peter Hambleton, Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, Sylvester McCoy, Adam Brown, Andy Serkis, Elijah Wood, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Barry Humphries, Manu Bennett. Directed by Peter Jackson

It is easy to become attached to one’s hearth and home. Here are we most comfortable, here is where our routine is. It is also very easy to fall into a rut at home. Why have adventures of your own when you can stay safely at home and live vicariously through the adventures of someone else’s reality or imagination on a computer/television screen?

Bilbo Baggins (Freeman) is of this mind. As a hobbit, he has a particular love of fine victuals, a comfortable bed and a cozy hole. Yet one day the sorcerer Gandalf the Grey (McKellen) turns up at his door, looking for a hobbit who wants to go on an adventure with him. He’s definitely in the wrong place for that. Bilbo is, after all, as respectable a hobbit as you’re likely to find anywhere and respectable hobbits don’t go on adventures, no sir. Adventures are messy, inconvenient things that make one late for dinner.

But Gandalf knows better and soon a company of dwarves are knocking on Bilbo’s door, including Balin (Stott), Dwalin (McTavish), Bifur (Kircher), Bofur (Nesbitt), Bombur (Hunter), Fili (O’Gorman), Kili (Turner), Oin (Callen), Gloin (Hambleton), Nori (Brophy), Dori (Hadlow), Ori (Brown) and their leader Thorin Oakenshield (Armitage).

The Dwarves were driven from their home in Erebor below the Lonely Mountain by Smaug the Dragon, who was attracted by the fabulous horde of gold and gems that were amassed by their King, who had grown greedy. Now homeless, doing odd jobs to get by, the small band means to reclaim their home using a map which will gain them entrance to Erebor through a secret entrance as the only other entrance to their beautiful home is guarded by the ever-watchful Smaug.

Bilbo is at first reluctant to join them but eventually relents, sympathetic to those who have no home. He means to help them retake theirs, even though the way is dangerous as it proves to be. They are captured by Trolls although Bilbo and Gandalf save them; they are also chased by Orcs led by the half-mad Azog the Defiler (Bennett) who bears a personal grudge with Thorin.

They also meet with Elrond (Weaving) in Rivendell although Thorin bears great enmity to the Elves who stood by and watched without helping when the Dwarves needed their aid against Smaug. Elrond alone can read the map and show them the way to the hidden door to Erebor. Also at this council is Galadriel (Bennett), queen of the High Elves, and Saruman (Lee), chief of the sorcerer’s order. Both Elrond and Saruman council caution, while news from Radagast the Brown (McCoy), a sorcerer who protects the Greenwood that a necromancer has appeared in the deserted fortress of Dol Guldur are met with skepticism.

Galadriel however sides with Gandalf and privately offers her support if and when it’s needed. However, there is some dismay when it is revealed that the Dwarves have already departed for the Misty Mountains through which they must pass in order to reach the Lonely Mountain and Erebor. However, in the Misty Mountains they will meet their greatest challenge and Bilbo will find a date with destiny –  a strange creature named Gollum (Serkis) who has a very peculiar ring.

Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is one of the most beloved film series in history, not only generating a box office bonanza but Oscars as well. However, it was always known that the books they were based on were essentially sequels to The Hobbit which author J.R.R. Tolkien altered after publishing in order to create closer ties between the books.

The original novel was a children’s story and is shorter than each of the three of the books that comprised the trilogy, but Jackson has elected to create three movies from this book totaling well over eight hours of screen time (An Unexpected Journey clocks in at just under three hours). Buffering it with new material and some from other Tolkien works, this might upset purists who probably would have been happier with a single film.

Still, Jackson makes epics like nobody else and his attention to detail is legendary. Once again he has re-created Middle Earth in New Zealand and it looks every inch the part. So does Martin Freeman, a respected actor who is perfect as Bilbo. He gets the nuances of Bilbo, the good and courageous heart that is sometimes hidden beneath a stuffy exterior. Freeman’s voice even sounds like Bilbo. Happily enough, he resembles Ian Holm facially (Holm played Bilbo in the trilogy and reprises the role as the elderly Bilbo and narrates early on; he also gets a lovely seen with Frodo, with Elijah Wood reprising his role as well).

Armitage makes a splendid Thorin and may wind up getting the career boost Viggo Mortensen did from the trilogy. He is charismatic here with an inner nobility and a gruff exterior – just like I remember Thorin from the book. Like Mortensen, he’s also a very handsome man who is going to get his share of female attention.

Now the Dwarven company numbers thirteen including Thorin and while they all have their own personalities and characteristics, it’s difficult separating one from the other. Fili and Kili, the youngest and brashest members stand out as does the oldest, Balin and Dwalin. The others more or less run together – one’s the glutton, one’s the sensitive soul and then there’s the grumpy one. And Sneezy and Sleepy and Doc.

The party sequence at Bilbo’s runs on far too long; it could have easily been shortened by half. In fact, the whole movie is a bit longish; I would have been much happier had it been closer to two hours than three. We really don’t get much more than a glimpse of Smaug (which I suspect won’t change until the third film in 2014) or even the Lonely Mountain which we see from a distance at the very end of the film – not counting the prologue when we witness the Dwarves fleeing Erebor.

Does it recapture the magic of the first three films? Absolutely and that’s the thing to remember. It doesn’t duplicate it however – the mood of The Hobbit is a lot different than the mood of the trilogy – and I think a lot of critics who have dissed this movie have been thrown by that. If you’re expecting a note-by-note LOTR replay, you’ll be disappointed. This is clearly a new set of movies set in the same universe and unlike the Star Wars prequels, these is actually a good movie that you’ll want to see and not just because it’s Middle Earth but because you’ll be entertained.

Da Queen and I decided to go whole hog with this one and we saw it in IMAX 3D with the accelerated frame rate and I highly recommend it. For once the upcharge is worth it.

REASONS TO GO: A welcome return to Middle Earth. Freeman is the perfect Bilbo and the Dwarves are a merry lot. Nice cameos from LOTR veterans.

REASONS TO STAY: Runs a little bit too long; some of the beginning scenes with Bilbo meeting the Dwarves might have been cut a little bit.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few frightening images, plenty of action and violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film to be shot at a frame rate of 48 frames per second, twice the industry standard. The difference is noticeable with smoother motion, but especially in the 3D version which the depth of field is more realistic.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/22/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100. The reviews are surprisingly mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fellowship of the Ring

TROLL LOVERS: The troll scene contains some very realistic if dimwitted trolls.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: The Holly and the Quill begins!